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Flats boat sinks on protected Key Largo reef

Seeking to limit damage to one of the Florida Keys’ best-known dive sites, Heiki Klatt, diving with the Rainbow Reef Dive Center, removes lines and gear from a boat that sank Sunday on Molasses Reef. Extent of damage to the reef off Key Largo has not been determined.
Seeking to limit damage to one of the Florida Keys’ best-known dive sites, Heiki Klatt, diving with the Rainbow Reef Dive Center, removes lines and gear from a boat that sank Sunday on Molasses Reef. Extent of damage to the reef off Key Largo has not been determined.

Two men spent several pre-dawn hours in the water at the Molasses Reef light tower near Key Largo Sunday after their 17-foot boat sank at the renowned dive site.

Their boat, a Hewes powered by a 115-horsepower outboard, swamped in windy conditions after the boat propeller became tangled in a mooring-buoy line around 4 a.m., the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported.

“Waves came over the transom of [the 1976 Hewes], a backcountry flats skiff, causing the vessel to take on water [and] quickly swamping it,” wrote FWC Officer Mike McKay. The boat “went down by the stern.”

Boat owner Francisco M. Romero, 61, of Key Largo and passenger Dorian Reyes, 57, of Miami were able grab life preservers and held onto the No. 16 Molasses mooring buoy. They later swam several dozen yards to the light marking the reef and climbed up the structure, about five miles offshore.

The boat remained wedged into rocks or coral on the bottom as of midday Thursday due to hazardous ocean conditions that prevented a salvage.

“We have a salvage plan that’s been approved but we’ve been beset by weather,” Steve Powers of Sea Tow Key Largo said Thursday. “It’s a small boat so it’s not going to be a difficult job. But right now it’s just not safe to attempt a salvage.”

After daybreak Sunday, a commercial dive vessel rescued the two boaters. They later were taken to shore by a U.S. Coast Guard boat. Reyes reportedly received medical treatment for jellyfish or fire coral stings.

Romero told the FWC that the men were fishing but were unaware they were at Molasses Reef, a protected area in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a report says.

“The engine is wedged between three boulders [or] coral heads,” McKay described.

Divers out with the Rainbow Reef Dive Center removed lines and gear from the reef and bottom, along with two batteries and an oil container from the sunken boat.

Divers have voiced concern that the sunken boat could do more damage to Molasses Reef, widely considered one of the most scenic underwater sites in the Florida Keys.

“With respect to the vessel out on Molasses, we don't yet have a good sense of what the impacts are to the reef,” Lisa Symons, deputy superintendent of the Keys marine sanctuary, said Thursday. “Part of it depends whether the vessel stays intact, given the weather and swells. We won’t be able to do an assessment [of the reef] until after it comes out.”

Under federal regulations on national marine sanctuaries, a civil case seeking fines or restoration costs could be filed against boat operators who damage protected resources.

Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206

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